Tag Archive: review

Dec 29 2016

Review of the year: 2016

Another year passes and once more it is time to write the annual review of my blogging. I no longer have an hour and a half or so of commuting on the train everyday, so I thought my reading rate might have dropped. However, I see in the last year I have 21 book reviews on my blog as opposed to 22 last year. As usual my reading is split between technical books, the history of science and various odds and ends.

In terms of technical books, Pro Git by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub and Test-driven Development with Python by Harry J.W. Percival probably had the biggest impact on me in terms of the way I did my job. But Beautiful Javascript edited by Anton Kovalyov was the most thought provoking, it is an edited collection of the thoughts of a set of skilled Javascript developers. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is an autobiography describing how it is to be a scientist, it is beautifully written. Maphead by Ken Jennings is about those obsessed with maps rather than science. Of the more directly science-related books I think The Invention of Science by David Wootton was the best in terms of provoking thought, it’s also very readable. The Invention covers the Scientific Revolution from 1500-1700 in terms of the language available to and used by its practitioners.

A second contender for the “sweeping overview” award goes to A New History of Life by Peter D. Ward and Joe Kirschvink which focuses particularly on the work over the last 20 years on the very earliest life on earth. I read some economic history in the form of The Honourable Company by John Keay (about the East India Company) and the more general The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. I also read about the Romans, in the form of Mary Beard’s SPQR which is a history of ancient Rome, and Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason which is about my home city.

You can see all I’ve read on Goodreads. I don’t blog about my fiction reading, I think because for me blogging is mostly about reminding myself about facts and ideas I’ve read about and I struggle to see how I’d do that with fiction. Perhaps I should try. In fiction, I’ve been making some effort to read books not written by middle aged white men which has been rewarding.

This year’s holiday was to Benllech on the isle of Anglesey, an embarrassingly short drive from home – our holiday bungalow had leaflets describing attractions in our home city! We took in a number of castles, the beach on a daily basis and the Anglesey Sea Zoo. The photo at the top is from Amlwch which was once port to the Copper Mountain.

The year has been momentous politically with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party, the Leave vote in the EU referendum, David Cameron stepping down as Prime Minister and then leaving parliament, Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister and the election of Donald Trump as president in the US. I haven’t written much about all of these things. I wrote a blog post shortly before the EU referendum, putting out my reasons for voting Remain. I accidently wrote that I thought Leave would win – which was strangely prophetic. In the aftermath of the vote I was dazed and disturbed, much as I thought I would be. I half wrote many blog posts after the vote but the only one I published was on the unsuitability of Boris Johnson for pretty much anything, let alone the delicate role of Foreign Secretary.

Things are looking up a little for my party, the Liberal Democrats, who seem the only ones prepared to oppose the government over their Brexit “plans”, and the only ones prepared to vote against the “Snooper’s Charter”. We’re the only ones making significant gains in local elections and have made significant showings in Westminster by-elections, getting a 23.5% swing in Witney and winning Richmond Park with a 30.4% swing. The Labour party seems to be marching itself into the wilderness with considerable enthusiasm.

David Laws’ Coalition was my only political reading of the year.

I’ve written a couple of times on exercise related things: The Running Man on my newfound enthusiasm for running. Since writing I have a fancier running watch (a Garmin Forerunner 235), I read Bob Glover’s The Runner’s Handbook and decided I had to have a heart rate monitor. As it was I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the heart rate monitor but it is nice that the GPS is ready to go by the time I reach the end of my walk up the drive rather than five minutes later. I also wrote about cycling to work in Ride, as others struggle to find parking at work I have a 12 space bike shed mostly to myself (particularly in the winter)!

I’ve been trying out Headspace recently which is an app for guided meditation, it seems helpful for the gloomy winter. I realise that some of the elements of meditation I used to get from our long walks in the country. 

Work has been fun, I have built something which is now being sold to customers, and I made something of an impact with my sequinned jacket and willingness to dance the night away at the office Christmas party. 

Dec 31 2015

Review of the year: 2015

Another year comes to an end and it time to write my annual review. As usual my blog has been a mixture, with book reviews the most frequent item. I also wrote a bit about politics and some technology blog posts. You can see a list of my posts this year on the index page. My technology blog posts are about programming, and the tools that go with it – designed as much to remind me of how I did things as anything else.

My most read blog post this year was a technical one on setting up Docker to work on a Windows 10 PC – it appears to have gone out in an email to the whole Docker community. For the non-technical reader, Docker is like a little pop up workshop which a programmer can take with them wherever they go, all their familiar tools will be found in their Docker container. It makes sharing the development of software, and deploying it different places, much easier. 

Actually my most read blog post this year was the review of my telescope, which I wrote a few years ago – it clearly has enduring appeal! Sadly, I haven’t made much use of my telescope recently but I did reuse my experience to photograph the partial eclipse, visible in north west England in March. I took a whole pile of photographs and wrote a short blog post. It is a montage of my eclipse photos which graces the top of this post. I think the surprising thing for me was how long the whole thing took.

In book reading there was a mixture of technical books which I read in relation to my work, and because I am interested. My favourite of these was High Performance Python by Micha Gorelick and Ian Ozsvald, which lead me to thinking more deeply about my favoured programming language. I read a number of books relating to the history of science. The Values of Precision by edited by M. Norton Wise stood out – this was an edited collection about the evolution of precision in the sciences since population studies in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of the themes spoke directly to my experience as a scientist, and it was interesting to read about them from the point of view of historians. Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt was also very good. 

There was a General Election this year, which led to a little blogging on my part and then substantial trauma (as a Liberal Democrat). I stood for the local council in the “Chester Villages” ward, where I beat UKIP and the Greens (full results here), sadly the Chester Liberal Democrats lost their only seat on the Cheshire West and Chester Council.

I did a couple of little technical projects for my own interest over the year. I made my London Underground – Can I walk it? tool which helps the user decide whether to walk between London Underground stations, the distance between them often being surprisingly short in the central part of London. The distinguishing features of this tool is that it is dynamic, and covers walking distances which are not just nearest neighbour of the current line. You can find the website here. This little project incorporated a number of bits of technology I’d learnt about over the past few years, and featured help from David Hughes on the design side – you can see the result bellow.


My second project was looking at the recently released LIDAR data from the Environment Agency, I wrote about it here. LIDAR is a laser technique for determining the height of the land surface (or buildings, if they are in the way) to a high resolution – typically 1 metre but down to 25cm in some places. The data cover about 85% of England. The Environment Agency use the data to help plan flood and coastal defences, amongst other applications. I had fun overlaying the LIDAR imagery onto maps, and rendering it in 3D, below you can see St Paul’s cathedral rendered in 3D.

I changed job in the Autumn, moving from ScraperWiki in Liverpool to GB Group in Chester. In my new job I’m spending my days playing with data, and attending virtually no meetings – so all good there! Also my commute to work is a 25 minute cycle which I really enjoy. But I really value the experience I got at ScraperWiki. As a startup with an open source mentally I learnt lots of new things and could talk about them. I also got to work with some really interesting customers. It brought home to me how difficult it is to make a business work, it’s not enough just to do something clever – somebody has to pay you enough to do it – and that’s actually the really hard part.

I wrote a now obligatory holiday blog post. We stayed in Portinscale, just outside Keswick for our holiday at a time when the weather was rather better. The highlight of the trip for me was the Threlkeld Mining Museum, a place where older men collect old mining equipment for their entertainment and that of small children. Although Allan Bank in Grasmere was a close second, Allan Bank is a laid back hippy commune style National Trust property. Below you can see a view of Derwent Water to Catbells from Keswick.

A couple of things I haven’t blogged about: I started running in May and since then I’ve gone from running 5km in 34 minutes to 5km in 24 minutes, I’ve also lost 10kg. I should probably write a blog about this, since it involves data collection. There are some technical bits and pieces I’d quite like to write about (Python modules and sqlite) either because I use them so often or they’ve turned out to be useful. The other thing I haven’t written about is my CBT.

Dec 31 2014

Review of the year: 2014

Once again I look back on a year of blogging. You can see what I’ve been up to on the index page of this blog.

I get the feeling that my blog is just for me and a few students trying to fake having done their set reading. I regularly use my blog to remember how to fix my Ubuntu installation, and to help me remember what I’ve read.

A couple of posts this year broke that pattern.

Of Matlab and Python compared the older, proprietary way of doing scientific computing with Matlab to the rapidly growing, now mature, alternative of the Python ecosystem. I’ve used Matlab for 15 years or so as a scientist. At my new job, which is more open source and software developer oriented, I use Python. My blog post struck a cord with those burnt by licensing issues with Matlab. Basically, with Matlab you pay for a core license and then pay for toolboxes which add functionality (and sometimes you only use a small part of that functionality). It’s even more painful if you are managing networked licenses serving users across the world.

My second blog post with a larger readership was Feminism. This started with the unprofessional attire choice of a scientist on the Rosetta/Philae comet landing mission but turned into a wider, somewhat confessional post on feminism. In a nutshell: women routinely experience abuse and threat of which I believe men are almost entirely oblivious. 

As before my blogging energies have been split between my own blog here, and the ScraperWiki blog. My personal blogging is dominated by book reviews these days as, to be honest, is my blogging at ScraperWiki. I blog about data science books on the ScraperWiki blog  – typically books about software – and anything else on this blog. “Anything else” is usually broadly related to the history of science and technology.

This year has been quite eclectic. I read about the precursors to Darwin and his theory of evolution, macroeconomics, the Bell Laboratories, railways, parenthood, technology in society, finding the longitude (twice), Lord Kelvin, ballooning, Pompeii and I’ve just finished a book on Nevil Maskelyne – Astronomer Royal in the second half of the 18th century. I think my favourite of these was Finding Longitude by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt not only is the content well written but it is beautifully presented.

Over on the ScraperWiki blog I reviewed a further 12 books, bingeing on graph theory and data mining. My favourites from the "work" set were Matthew A. Russell’s Mining the Social Web and Seven Databases in Seven Weeks. Mining the Social Web because it introduces a bunch of machine learning algorithms around interesting social data, and the examples are supplied as IPython notebooks run in a virtual machine. Seven Databases is different – it gives a whistle stop tour of various types of database but manages to give deep coverage quite quickly.

I continue to read a lot whilst not doing a huge amount of programming – as I observed last year. I did write a large chunk of the API to the EU NewsReader project we’re working on which involved me learning SPARQL – a query language for the semantic web. Obviously to learn SPARQL I read a book, Learning SPARQL, I also had some help from colleagues on the project.

I had a lot of fun visualising the traffic and history of the London Underground, I did a second visualisation post on whether to walk between Underground stations in London.

Back on this blog I did some writing about technology, talking about my favourite text editor (Sublime Text), my experiences with Apple, Ubuntu and Windows operating systems, the dinky Asus T100 Transformer laptop, and replacing my hard drive with an SSD (much easier than I thought it would be). The Asus is sadly unused it just doesn’t serve a useful purpose beside my tablet and ultrabook format laptop. The SSD drive is a revelation, it just makes everything feel quicker.

The telescope has been in the loft for much of the last year but I did a blog post on the Messier objects – nebulae and so forth, and I actually took an acceptable photo of the Orion nebula although this went unblogged.

Finally, the source of the photo at the top of the page, I visited San Sebastian for an EU project I’m working on. I only had my phone so the pictures aren’t that good.

Happy New Year!

Dec 29 2013

Review of the year: 2013

Liverpool Metropolitan CathedralMy blogging is much reduced this year, at least on my own blog. This is a result of my new job with ScraperWiki and child care, Thomas is now nearly two years old.

I started the year with a couple of posts on my shiny new laptop; working for a startup I’ve escaped from the corporate Dell. One post was on the beast itself – a Sony VAIO, and Windows 8 – Microsoft’s somewhat confusing new operating system offering. The other post was on running Ubuntu on the VAIO. In the past this was a case of setting up dual boot but various innovations make this difficult and there is, in my view, a better solution: a virtual machine.

There wasn’t much ranting this year: I only managed one little one about higher education, and the reluctance amongst lecturers to take any teaching qualifications. The only other marginally opinion piece was on electronic books, where I muttered about DRM limiting the functionality of ebooks.

I managed to read a few books which ended up on my own blog: The Eighth Day of Creation, about the unravelling of the genetic code was a dense, heroic read. The Dinosaur Hunters was light and fluffy. Empire of the Clouds and The Backroom Boys were largely wistful rememberings of Britain’s former greatness in jet aeroplanes and in technology more generally. Chasing Venus and a History of the World in 12 Maps returned to the themes of geodesy and mapping which I’ve explored in the past. Finally, a bit of London history with The Subterranean Railway and Lucy Inglis’ Georgian London. I’ve been following Lucy on twitter since Georgian London was a twinkle in her eye. It’s difficult to choose a favourite amongst these, it’s either History of the World in 12 Maps or Georgian London.

Over on ScraperWiki’s blog I’ve been knocking out blog posts at a great rate, you can see them all here. I did a good deal of book reviewing over there too, my commute into work on the train means I get an hour or so of reading every day – which quickly adds up to a lot of reading! I read about machine learning, data visualisation (this and this), Tableau (this and this), natural language processing, R, Javascript and software engineering. I’m currently ploughing my way through Data Mining: Practical Machine Learning Tools and Techniques. I think my favourite of these was Natural Language Processing with Python. I’m beginning to see the value of the more expensive, better established publishing houses in terms of book quality.

Alongside this I did a few blog posts on new tools for my trade. I’ve long programmed to do scientific analysis but ScraperWiki is a company which sells software, and the discipline of writing software for others to use is different from writing software for yourself, particularly important are testing and source control.

I spoke at a couple of events: Data Science London, and Strata London where I gave an Ignite talk. Ignite talks follow a special format, they are five minutes long and you get 20 slides which advance automatically at the rate of one every 15 seconds – a somewhat frantic experience. My talk is captured on video.

I also did some bits of data analysis; #InspiringWomen was a look at a response to the online bullying and abuse of women. A place in the country was about data on house prices which we had collected for a campaign by Shelter.

Back on my own blog I managed to do a couple of photographic posts, one on Liverpool. The rail loop under Liverpool was closed which meant I had to walk across town to work, and I suddenly realised that Liverpool is rather spectacular architecturally. This led me on to getting the Pevsner Guide to Liverpool. The ScraperWiki office might be a bit unusual in that a quarter of the company owns this book! I also went on a business trip to Trento, which turns out to be a very attractive city, unfortunately I only had my phone with me to take photos.

The last year has highlighted to me what a privilege it was to have so much time to spend on my blogging, photography and garden shed fiddling in the past. It’s what got me my new job but for many, equally able, people this investment of time simply isn’t possible with the other responsibilities they have. Something to consider the next time you’re recruiting, and so highly rating that extra-curricular activity.

Also I realise I have a great deal of theoretical knowledge about a whole pile of technologies but I have spent rather less time on actually doing anything with them, so maybe this coming year there’ll be less reading and more coding on the train.

Happy New Year to you all!

Dec 28 2012

Review of the year: 2012

IMG_1236It has become a tradition for me to review my posts at the end of each year, OK I’ve done it twice before and now I find myself sounding like a teenage diarist.

Clearly the main event of this year has been The Arrival; Thomas was born on 4th February, as I write he is systematically throwing all his books on the floor whilst muttering to himself, it is 6am. I haven’t written much about Thomas but he fills my real life, looking after a small child is very much like conducting an experiment at a central facility.

I’ve managed to keep reading although at a somewhat reduced rate. I read about geodesy in “The Great Arc” and “Measure of the Earth”, both tales of considerable derring-do conducted in the jungles of India and Ecuador respectively. I read about scientific instruments, in Stargazers, “Decoding the Heavens”, "A computer called Leo" and "The History of Clocks & Watches". The subjects of the last two of these are obvious, the first is on telescopes and the second on the Antikythera mechanism, an astoundingly complex mechanical model of the heavens. I read about Alan Turing, Christiaan Huygens and Benjamin Franklin.

If I was forced to pick a favourite book I think I would go for Arthur Koestler’s "The Sleepwalkers" which traces the development of cosmology from the ancient Greeks to Isaac Newton with its focus on the journey from Copernicus, still obsessed with celestial circles, to Kepler who started to sound like a modern physicist. Keplers’ attempts to identify elliptic orbits takes on a pantomime air at some points… “They’re right in front of you!”. Or perhaps my favourite should be Stargazers since after reading this I bought a telescope – more of which below.

Slightly more miscellaneously I read Tim Harford’s "Adapt" about trial and error as an approach to public policy and management, "The Geek Manifesto" on science and politics and "The Etymologicon" – a casual journey through where words come from. Finally, I also read "Visualize This", capturing the essence of my data twiddling and cluing me into tidying up my plots using Inkscape (or Adobe Illustrator if you have the cash).

Another new thing this year was a telescope, rather than appear some sort of dedicated follower of fashion, rushing out to buy one in the wake of a celebrity astronomonothon, I delayed until May. This turned out to be a bad idea: it doesn’t get properly dark until two hours after sunset and starts to get light two hours before dawn difficult at the best of times, impossible when combined with childcare responsibilities. Consequently I got little star viewing action for quite some time, except for the Sun. My telescope review post (including video) was my most read post of the year. It has been magical though, my first view of Saturn with its rings had me hopping up and down like a small child! More recently I got Jupiter and the four moons discovered by Galileo. I’m still trying for a deep sky object, I don’t count my pictures of the whole Milky Way taken through a normal camera lens.

Not much else in the way of photography this year, obviously I have an enormous collection of photos of Thomas but I won’t bore you with them but I’ll say to expecting parents who are also keen photographers that a 50mm f/1.4 lens is ideal for photographing small children since you are often indoors operating in relatively low light. I also took some pictures of Chester Cathedral, Beeston Castle and in the area of Harlech, where we took our first holiday with Thomas.

I did a little bit of fiddling with data this year, plotting the spending of the Board of Longitude, finding that they did a great deal to support John Harrison through his life, and looking at how quarterly GDP growth figures are revised – basically they’re all over the place!

I also pottered around a little with science policy and politics. “I am Dr Faustus” was an oft-read post, in which I disagreed with Ananyo Bhattacharya’s assertion that basic research in the UK had been corrupted by the idea of showing some application. “GCSE results through the ages” also got a lot of hits, it showed the changes in grades for GCSE and A levels over the years. 

And as the year came to an end I handed in my notice to go to a new job – starting in March. I used some of my blog posts in support of my application!

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